Can We Have Sex Back?

Somewhere between Women’s Studies turning into Gender Studies and the university lawyers turning into risk managers, we seem to have lost the clitoris. As an historian, I consider this a rare case of history surprising us. Asked in 1970 to predict the likely trajectory of academic feminism from that moment forward, I doubt many would have expected that we would arrive at a place so devoid (or even ashamed) of open appreciation of female anatomy and physiology, and at a milieu so lacking in female sexual agency and pleasure.

Yet academic feminism has largely been absorbed into Gender Studies, and now, anyone given to exuberant talk of feeling like a natural woman risks being maligned as at best a dinosaur—who still believes in sex?!—and at worst a TERF (a supposedly “trans-exclusionary radical feminist”). Nowadays, you can’t love your innate trinkets without oppressing someone with your damned uterine privilege.

Less surprising, I suppose, is that university risk managers would prefer that we all leave sex at home—out of the classroom, out of the lab, out of the break room, even out of the library, where it has been blossoming since at least Aristotle. Sixty years after the pill transformed women’s lives, sex on campus doesn’t lead to babies, it leads to lawyers in polyester suits.

Bleh. This is a sad and sorry development. For a start, sex can be pretty delightful, and if you are a smart person (as many—though by no means all—academics are), you will likely find that sex with other smart people is much more satisfying than sex with the dumb. Smart people are most likely to meet when they work together. Yet to broach the idea of sex with someone at work today? Mais non! Academic life to such a great extent still valorizes the mind at the prideful expense of bodily pleasure. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could really break from the monasteries from which our universities emerged and get laid sometimes without quite so much fear and shame and paperwork?

Then there are the kids to consider. Our fear of talking about sex—never mind teaching about it—has left the present generation of the young with no place to engage intellectually with the concept of eroticism. With so much monumentally bad sex ed (or near-total lack of sex ed) in our public schools, many of our undergraduates have been exposed to huge amounts of pornography but remarkably little information about their own bodies. We are willing to talk with them about gender, but not about the flesh that performs it.

But they aren’t going to learn how orgasms work—physically, culturally, and linguistically—by talking about gender. Nothing stops discussion of the orgasm like a discussion of gender. And while gender-based oppression strikes me as a very important thing for young people to learn about and understand—feminism made my good life possible—true emancipation requires the sexual liberation that comes from women really knowing their own sex.

I say this in part from personal experience. Like a lot of young women who grew up Roman Catholic, I found my clitoris in a book. The book was Our Bodies, Ourselves and the year was circa 1985. While I was also reading feminist texts about things like wage gaps, unequal social expectations of mothers versus fathers, and the justice system’s revictimization of rape survivors, reading sex-positive material by women about my anatomy and physiology was a critical component of being fully empowered. Sexual knowledge was and is sexual power.

When, circa 1998, I decided to teach a class on sex and gender to my high-achieving science undergraduates at the Lyman Briggs School of Michigan State University, I was unsurprised to discover that my students wanted to know at least as much about biological sex and human sexuality as they did about gender. For many of them, there was no other place but my Science Studies class where someone could answer their questions about eroticism.

As I was polishing up the syllabus for the first version of that class, the university sent us all a brochure about the latest sexual harassment policy. Reading it and deciding it was garbage—much more concerned with protecting the university’s administration than protecting women—I decided to annotate my syllabus to inform the Lyman Briggs School’s director of all the ways I intended to violate their policy. For example, I would be showing photos of genitals and discussing them with my undergraduate science students. We would have conversations that were likely to implicate our own sex lives, and I would let them write papers about their sex lives if they wanted; then, I would then shamelessly grade those papers. Finally, we would talk about sex during office hours.

To his credit, our director—a mathematician—thanked me for the warning and then began voluntarily reading from the humanities literature about the ways in which talking about sex is a form of sex. One cannot teach about sex without at some level engaging our sexual cultures as well as the parts of our brains that respond to sexual cues. (We rather elegantly ignored the implications for our conversation. Tea was sipped.) On the first day of class, I went over the brochure and the syllabus with the students and explained to them where we would be violating the university’s policy. I suggested they drop the class if they didn’t feel comfortable with the topics we were going to engage. The next day, rather than having anyone drop, I had a waiting list of 20 students. The need felt greater and greater all the time.

Nevertheless, I hear from colleagues all over the country that they have stripped their syllabi of all eroticism, chiefly out of fear of progressives hauling them before the Title IX tribunals on charges of insensitivity, victimization, and general wrong-thinking. Who could have guessed that in 2021, the chastity belts would be distributed not by the patriarchy, but by people earnestly bearing Rosie the Riveter t-shirts? No mention may be made of the fact that the sex-policing is often carried out by women my age who are happy to diffuse the sexual potential of younger women under the guise of sparing them harassment. What a genius move by some, to take these young women who might otherwise be in competition with us for resources and turn them into our prudish foot-soldiers, convinced all the while that we are protecting them.

Of course, to some extent we are. There are some truly dreadful jerks on every campus, people (typically, though not always, men) who will distribute certain resources and limit access to others chiefly on the basis of who is willing to stroke their egos and other things. Being sex-positive doesn’t mean having to pretend sexual harassment doesn't exist and isn't pernicious. And we know it disproportionately harms women. I had colleagues driven out of their professions by serial harassers who were only effectively outed after #MeToo, years too late.

Then there is the problem, if you are supportive of heterodoxy, of recognizing that sex-positivity is a value not embraced by a lot of conservatives. In our teaching and presentations, it can be difficult to think about how to engage the reality of human sex and sexuality without rattling people—including students and faculty—who think public sexual repression to be a virtue. While I don’t agree with their takes, as a sex-positive person I don’t want to be a killjoy to their lifestyle choices.

Cross-campus efforts are being made to stop sexual predators and end quid-pro-quos, to level the playing fields, to make all students and faculty feel welcome, and to respect and support people of all genders. All these initiatives make me feel as if we’re getting somewhere. But can we also acknowledge that sex will always be with us, and that this is a good thing? Can we know our bodies on campus without losing our minds?


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2021/09/20/can-we-have-sex-back/
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a brisk and entertaining read. thanks a lot. That Modigliani nude is in your face erotic. Not a male’s gaze but a lover’s gaze.

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Great essay! Thanks for the read, and I am a great admirer of you work, not least for pointing out that it not just ideology which is undermining Western universities, but more properly the intersection of ideology with the New Corporatism of universities. We consoled ourselves with the notion that purveyors of the ideology would never find proper jobs, but apparently 3% of all American corporate budgets is now eaten up by diversity and inclusion management and budgeting- and Robin DiAngelo continues to be paid $6,000 per event, for berating rooms full of white people.

But I think it was overly optimistic that America would ever escape its puritanical roots for very long. Here in the UK, I’m sure we will be back to clothing table and chair legs any day now, although I probably shouldn’t mention it since their is now a proven relationship between the the imputations of satire and what activists choose to lobby for and enact. Just ask Andrew Doyle whose satire has often proved prophetic:

But that’s not my favourite one:

The fourth letter of each sentence spells out the acrostic: ‘Titania McGrath wrote this you gullible hacks!’

Meanwhile, this New Puritanism in the university probably contributes the fact that a growing number of American college women expect sexual experiences to be uncomfortable or painful. There are definite consequences to a culture where people feel as though they cannot talk open and freely about subjects which might concern them, for fear of the adverse social consequences.

As usual, my essays are available on my Substack and free to view and comment:

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Eli’s Pet Theory Time: in an industrial or agrarian society where physical labor (and strength) is in high demand, women are dependent on men, economically, and thus have rigid standards imposed on them (call this patriarchy if you like). We live in a post-industrial service economy now, where if anything women seem to have the upper hand, economically. What we’re seeing is women attempting to impose their own set of standards on the opposite sex now that the pendulum has swung in their favor, which seems to, among other things, involve overhyping sexual harassment issues and using accusations and the threat of such accusations to punish and manipulate perceived wrongdoers (and everyone else, for that matter). That being the case, it turns out that all the “liberation” talk isn’t helpful anymore, because it’s not intellectually feasible to argue “liberation for me, but not for thee,” and liberated male sexuality can be a pretty ugly thing, as anyone who has used the internet has probably figured out by now.

This is also occurring in a context where gender ratios are becoming more and more skewed on campuses in the US, which increases the sexual bargaining power of the most desirable men (always a minority), and so the practical outcome of “sex positivity” is plenty of sexual opportunities for young women but few of which will result in a long term committed relationship. The result is that sex positivity chatter sounds pretty dated to most people under 35.

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After the Great War, and a whole nation of women were told by their classroom teachers that a portion of them should consign themselves to a loveless life without children, because of all the young men lost. The latter part of the equation may be untrue these days in some circumstances, but generally far more women are likely to live loveless lives. It’s the simple consequence of our current societal dynamics, and the fact that women don’t want to pair off with men who are less successful than them.

The irony is that the pervasive influence of our culture affects highly intelligent, conscientious, economically privileges males least of all- they know how to play the game and exactly what to say to make themselves supposed allies. It’s young men at the bottom who are falling off a cliff. Ironically, it will be young women at the top who will be most bereft- A’s select for B’s, etc.

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This is one perspective. Alternatively, serial abusers have been allowed to harass women with impunity for decades and some of them are finally facing consequences for their actions. The environment in offices has definitely changed and perhaps the pendulum has swung too far, but I think it’s untenable to imply that false claims of harassment are a greater problem than harassment itself.

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Can we ever work this out for ourselves with out campus elites telling us?

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I have not in my 35 years of corporate employ encountered, observed, or otherwise been made aware of serial (male) sexual abusers in even the most generous sense of that term, including awkward jokes, unwanted patting on the shoulder, etc.

On the other hand I know of two (male) colleagues in my immediate team whose careers were materially impacted by HR interventions according to very vague accusations of (female) fellow workers.

Both of which turned out to be cries for help in the broader sense from damaged individuals.

So yes, my personal perspective is that the pendulum has swung dangerously far.

I was discussing this with my (female) manager the other day. I, and many fellow (male) colleagues, are very wary of private conversations with (female) fellow colleagues. This (female) manager was the very person who fired the (female/trans) plaintiffs in my personal litany above.

This is not at all good for female colleagues. They will get isolated. They will feel isolated.

But as long as y’all wanna protect females soooo much - poor women can’t do anything themselves - we males have to mentor and sponsor those poor (female) people and if we don’t then they will complain to HR etc. then we (male) employees will be very circumspect.

I know that sounds very victimhood. But yes, the pendulum has swung too far.

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Thanks for sharing your perspective. Given your views, I doubt that female colleagues who’ve experienced harassment would confide in you.

I trust my current (female) manager’s perspective more than yours.

I am currently in a relatively long (6 year) relationship with a (female) colleague, who I met at work (and we both disclosed our intent to enter a relationship as is required), whose perspective I also value more than yours.

I would prefer some concrete personal litany to counterpose mine @Schopenhauer, rather than personal judgements.

Is it that time of month?

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But can we ever

even?

And also get to 20 characters?

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Sex abusers just like pedophiles, domestic abusers & even muggers usually target more vulnerable individuals. That the confident self assured women that you have experience with are less likely to be victims is no accident. And when those confident one’s do take a legitimate ‘hit’ they often like to dismiss it as ‘boys will be boys & if I make a fuss the boys won’t like/respect me so much’.

Preech it woman! Show me your personal litany, then we can talk.

These are just jargon. “Sex abusers just like pedophiles…”. How about snakes and crocodiles?

Those damn sex abusers. If only we could get rid of them.

Sex abusers. How exactly does one abuse sex?

How do you think boys take it?

How do you think boys are taught to take it?

I always like to turn gendered prose around. Does this even make sense?

“That the confident self assured men that you have experience with are less likely to be victims is no accident. And when those confident one’s do take a legitimate ‘hit’ they often like to dismiss it as ‘girls will be girls”

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Consent?

Given the reaction to metoo? Denial for a certain type. Certainly not all men. That’s not to say there aren’t scurrilous accusations & the failure to respect due process shouldn’t be called out. It’s just that the lack of trust that there maybe something to such a groundswell of complaint & acknowledgement that the absence of proof doesn’t prove the accusations false points to them not taking it in good faith.

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Ok, apologies. I misunderstood the question. I think that’s a false equivalence. Sorry to go all post mod but power differentials do matter sometimes.

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Sure, but the work HR issues that I raised above were all about work-time speech rather than anything close to actual sexual congress (and to be concrete, the impact was a 2 year hold on any promotion opportunity, which was imminent before the complaint in one case).

I do know of a (male) colleague who was fired after having apparently consensual sex at the Xmas party in the work toilets. The woman involved had to take a view after her partner complained to HR :stuck_out_tongue: (and of course was not fired).

We can talk about good faith etc. and I am deeply invested in trying to properly understand the motivations that get to formal (corporate HR) level of complaint.

I still want some personal litany from you @Ella-B. Is this all hypothetical to you?

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I’m sure that “power differentials” is meaningful in your head and I even understand what that means in many waves of feminist theory, let alone post-mod - altho the goal posts have moved.

In my immediate work place women are more than protected - they are actively supported in many ways (that men are not).

I’m not sure how to interpret your sense of “power differential”. Concretely, what you you mean by that term, @Ella-B?

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I suspect when all levels of conciliation have failed to meet the satisfaction of the accuser.

Not at all. But lucky for the ‘perp’ he was welcome :wink:. Christmas parties.… they actually had to put a stop to them they were so out of control where I worked. ‘I was inebriated’ was often used as a get out of jail free card.
But more seriously, it was a regular occurrence in the office when I was younger & yes towards myself usually in the form of inappropriate ‘stroking’ & comments. And no it wasn’t just ‘you look nice today’ until sexual harassment policies were brought in that made a huge difference that of course can be exploited but isn’t everything? To be fair many people didn’t genuinely know when they crossed the line as well as what invited such behaviour that’s why i’m a supporter of being proactive with education in the workplace/schools/colleges if it’s done in a non gendered non accusatory manner.

For example when abuse originates from a superior/senior person at work/school/family member or a partner/stranger who has superior strength or even manipulation skills because of age/experience which is more commonly the case from males.

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Why do you think these characteristics are more male-dominated? I was particularly intrigued by manipulation, cos traditionally this is considered part of the female dark arts.

I’m not even sure how to interpret this. Did you have an ambiguous sexual encounter?

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